2004: A (surprisingly) great year in music | AspenTimes.com

2004: A (surprisingly) great year in music

Stewart Oksenhorn
Gillian Welch

What a crummy year for music in Aspen, the worst in more than a decade for sure. With the Double Diamond and the Grottos out of business, horrible weather all over Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ festivals, and a gloomy consensus that the sun has set on Aspen’s nightlife, there was little worth celebrating. That’s how I would have expected to sum up the musical 2004 here in the upper valley. I remember writing at the end of last year that, with Aspen devoid of a real music club, I couldn’t foresee a happy year of music.Fortunately, I was wrong. Everywhere you looked, music presenters stepped up to the plate to fill the holes left by the exit of the Double D. The Wheeler Associates brought Emmylou Harris to the Wheeler. Josh Behrman’s Mountain Groove Productions presented Michael Franti and Ziggy Marley and Steve Earle. Snowmass stepped up with oodles of summer music, including Leftover Salmon and Liquid Soul. And Jazz Aspen, despite two wintry summer festivals, hit it big in attendance and energy level with both its June and Labor Day festivals. Down the valley, Steve’s Guitars continued to distinguish itself as a big name in small listening rooms. Back in Aspen, Main Street Bakery nearly mirrored Steve’s with its regular acoustic concerts.And late in 2004 came perhaps the best news of all, that the old Double Diamond space would be revivified in early 2005 with the opening of Belly Up, a sister to Solano Beach, California’s long-running club of the same name.Looking back, 2004 featured four concerts that stand tall as performances which I count myself privileged to have seen. I see four as a good number; I figure there were years in the mid-’90s when the Double D, at its height, couldn’t match it.

So with an eye toward things getting even better, here’s a look at the top 10 concerts of an improbably good 2004. (The first four are my mind-blowing performances; apart from those, everything is listed in chronological order.)Michael Franti/Ziggy MarleyMarch 21, Snowmass Conference CenterThe dreariness of the Snowmass Conference Center was no match for the mighty Michael Franti. The singer delivered important and inspirational messages: bashing the Iraq war but vividly praising U.S. soldiers, urging love and tolerance, and generally raising the bar on human potential. In the face of all those heady ideas, Franti and his outstanding soul-rock band never dropped the beat. The set was the best night of dancing I’ve had with my wife in years.Ziggy Marley never should have been put in the position of following Franti. Without his brothers and sisters from the Melody Makers adding zip to the show, Marley’s low-key, prayerlike reggae performance took the energy level down many notches. The highlight of his set? When Franti joined him onstage.

Béla Fleck & Edgar MeyerMay 27, Harris HallHow do you take stunning virtuosity and make it swing and stimulate? It’s a tricky thing, but to the duo of banjoist Béla Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer, it seems to come naturally. Fleck & Meyer, who first met in Aspen and have continued to reteam here, continue pushing the strings envelope. Their latest appearance here featured high-wire takes on Paganini and Bach, as well as their own compositions that are neither bluegrass, classical, jazz nor folk, but some unique, mesmerizing form that comes from a deep well of imagination and technical skill.Medeski, Martin & WoodJune 27, Jazz Aspen June Festival, Rio Grande ParkThe fact that the tent was 90 percent empty for the opening act, the weather was more mid-November than late-June, and security kept the few would-be dancers as far away from the stage as possible didn’t seem to faze Medeski, Martin & Wood. In fact, the New York keyboard trio didn’t seem to notice the audience at all, so entranced were they by the avant-groove they laid down. The sound in the near-empty tent was surprisingly good. It’s hard to imagine myself enjoying the music – somehow both minimalist and driving – any more. But it would have been nice to have a few more bodies dancing alongside me.Gillian WelchSept. 2, Wheeler Opera HouseI’d only been waiting since the release of Gillian Welch’s debut album, in 1996, to hear the old-time singer-songwriter perform. So the fact that Welch made her Aspen debut on the worst date imaginable – the night before the start of the Jazz Aspen Labor Day Festival – was not about to impede me.

I expected great things from Welch, and she delivered completely, reaching back into that old, weird America to make timeless folk songs. The shocking part was her ever-present partner, David Rawlings, and how his guitar-playing merged the raw and dirty with the beautiful. Even better was the duo’s perfect synch, the way they did a little “un, un, UNH” dance to lock into the beginning of each song.And the best of the rest:Emmylou HarrisFeb. 14, WheelerRadiant, possessed of one of the most heavenly voices, and accompanied by the wonderful singer-guitarist Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris was something to behold. The fact that she has emerged recently as an accomplished songwriter, and that the highlight of her show was her own songs like “Red Dirt Girl,” gave Emmylou one more dimension of royalty.

Phillips, Grier & FlinnerMarch 24, Beyond Bluegrass Festival of Acoustic Music, WheelerThe trio of bassist Todd Phillips, guitarist David Grier and mandolinist Matt Flinner took acoustic music and made it their own, toying with rhythm, dynamics and structure. Their all-instrumental show demonstrated how music can be a language of its own.Wynton MarsalisJune 24, Jazz Aspen June Festival, Rio Grande ParkTrumpeter Wynton Marsalis put on a perfectly enjoyable show in October 2003 at the Wheeler. But this Jazz Aspen performance, with nearly the same quartet, had the extra mojo, evident in the New Orleans medley, including a soul-shaking “Down by the Riverside,” that ended the show.

Yerba BuenaJune 26, JAS After Dark, Mill Street Club in the St. Regis AspenThe Jazz Aspen June Festival’s move to downtown Aspen paid off in its second year with a raging spirit all over town. Best of all was the contemporary, pan-Latin soul-funk of the colorful, exotic Yerba Buena, led by guitarist Andres Levin. The packed house gave the show an appropriate sweaty feel. Further testament to the band’s appeal was how my daughter Olivia danced her way through Yerba Buena’s outdoor set on the Cooper Avenue mall the next day.Robert RandolphSept. 6, Jazz Aspen Labor Day Festival, Snowmass Town ParkFor its record-setting attendance, Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival was largely absent of incendiary performances. Steve Miller, Jack Johnson and Lyle Lovett all made solid appearances, but there was little that settles into the long-term memory bank.The exception was steel guitarist Robert Randolph, whose sacred-steel style of gospel was more Hendrix than Sunday morning church music. With a charismatic smile and a band that was as talented as its leader, Randolph made an indelible impression.

David Lowery & Johnny HickmanDec. 17, Blue DoorDavid Lowery of Camper van Beethoven and Cracker, and Johnny Hickman, Lowery’s co-leader in Cracker, teamed for a small-scale, mostly acoustic show at the low-profile Blue Door in Snowmass. But there’s nothing small about the duo’s repertoire, which ranged from the silly to the sweet to the sociopolitical – and was invariably smart and sharply played.One semi-addition: The concert portion of Jazz Aspen’s benefit event, JASummerNights, featuring neo-swing band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, was nothing special. But what went on inside Iguana’s during the main event made it one of the best nights of the year. Students in the JAS Academy Summer Sessions program, led by top jazzers Christian McBride and Wycliffe Gordon, launched into a spontaneous jam session that was the epitome of music being made just for the fun of it.Other notes: Opening acts reigned in 2004. Though the two were billed as co-headliners, Spearhead in fact opened for Ziggy Marley. Medeski, Martin & Wood opened for Buddy Guy. Also at the June Festival, country-rocker Shelby Lynne was far more captivating than Al Green and his overblown emoting. Robert Randolph was the first of three acts on the final day of the Labor Day Festival, and blew the rest, Lucinda Williams and Cake, off the stage. And though they didn’t outshine headliner Gillian Welch, Old Crow Medicine Show got a standing ovation for its warm-up set.Looking into the crystal ball, I see Hot Tuna (Friday, Jan. 7, Wheeler), Hit & Run Bluegrass (Jan. 27, Main Street Bakery), Madeleine Peyroux (Feb. 3, Wheeler), Sound Tribe Sector 9 and Blackalicious (Feb. 3, Snowmass Conference Center), and the Tribute to Ray Brown, featuring Christian McBride, John Clayton and more (March 23, Harris Hall) competing to make the best of 2005 list. Also, the opening night of Belly Up – perhaps Jan. 28, the night before the X Games begin – is one not to be missed. And I expect Jazz Aspen to deliver a big follow-up on all their programs, especially JASummerNights.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com